Twice as many over-50s leaving labour market because of ill-health than retirement, union warns

But experts say in reality departures are caused by ‘often ageist’ system and urge businesses to reassess how they look after older employees

Nearly twice as many older workers left the labour market because of sickness and ill-health than for retirement during the pandemic, a union has warned.

Analysis of ONS Labour Force Survey data by the TUC found that 97,000 workers aged between 50 and 65 had left the labour market due to sickness and ill-health between the three months to September 2019 and the same period in 2021. In comparison, just 50,000 left because they retired. 

Overall, the number of people in this age group who dropped out of the labour market, meaning they were not looking for work, increased by 228,000 (1.5 percentage points) since the start of 2020.

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Commenting on the findings, Emma Twyning, director of communications and policy at the Centre for Ageing Better, said over-50s had been leaving the labour market at a “worrying rate” during the pandemic.

However, while many older workers outwardly attribute their decision to stop working to  ill-health, Twyning said in reality they were leaving as “a result of an often ageist labour market, in which one in three workers say their age disadvantages them in applying for jobs”.

She urged employers to do more to provide opportunities and accommodate older employees by removing age bias from initial recruitment and offering flexible working.

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“Our research shows that flexible working is the single most impactful change that employers can make,” Twyning said, adding that without meaningful support in place, many of these would-be workers will be shut out of the labour market for good.” 

This was echoed by Jon Boys, labour market economist at the CIPD, who added that reasonable adjustments and easy access to occupational health services were particularly important when it came to supporting and retaining older workers.

He added that the type of work done – whether a job was manual or desk based, for example – was also “a key factor in determining job quality, so it's not surprising that it's also a significant factor when it comes to people's overall health”.

“All workers should have access to good work and we need to see more employers thinking creatively and holistically at how to make this happen," said Boys.

The TUC’s analysis also found that Black and ethnic minority workers were more likely than white workers to have left the labour market because of sickness before they reached retirement age.  

It found that two in five (40 per cent) Black and ethnic minority workers between 50 and 65 who had left the labour market during the pandemic did so because of sickness and ill-health, compared to a third (33 per cent) of white workers.

The union also found white workers were significantly more likely to retire before reaching state pension age compared to Black and ethnic minority workers (40 per cent and 17 per cent respectively). 

Samantha Dickinson, equality and diversity partner at Mayo Wynne Baxter, said employers could help prevent ethnic minority workers and those working in more working class jobs from retiring early by changing their recruitment processes and addressing any unconscious biases that could lead them into making assumptions about the demographic of their workforce. 

She also warned that from a legal perspective, if businesses failed to address the loss of older workers in general, as well as losing skills and expertise, “they also risk facing costly discrimination claims where damages are uncapped”.  

“Looking after all workers means understanding that different workers have different needs, one size never fits all,” she explained, suggesting that firms with 250 or more employees should know that staff are entitled to request time off work to study or train – which might help retain older workers in employment.